This past week was a fun and eventful one. In honor of World Book Night on Tuesday, our crew at Nelson Literary Agency headed out to Coors Field and the 16th Street Pedestrian Mall in downtown Denver to hand out free books to reluctant readers. “Reluctant readers” were the folks who: (a) pretended not to see us waving at them, (b) ran the other direction with us in pursuit, or (c) called the police. Just kidding. We did find that people initially thought we were trying to sell them something—there’s always a catch to something free, right? But then we got lucky: we made an awesome new friend named Isaac, who loaded his pedicab with two literary agents (Kristin and Sara), one adorable child (Sara’s son), two big boxes of The Phantom Tollbooth and Good Omens, and took off down the Mall. After that it was a piece of cake! You can see more pictures of the fun here on Facebook.
On Friday, I headed to Fort Collins for the Northern Colorado Writers Conference to take pitches and talk to writers about what agents look for in a manuscript. The conference featured a dynamic keynote by author/actor Andrew McCarthy (The Longest Way Home) and craft presentations by Todd Mitchell, Laura Pritchett, Bonnie Ramthun, and many other talented Colorado authors. On the industry side, Lara Perkins (Andrea Brown Literary Agency), Rebecca Schwab (Leapfrog Press), and Robert Brewer (Writers Digest) gave a great balance of craft and marketing guidance. One thing I really liked about this conference was that instead of the traditional pitch sessions, where I listen to individual writers talk about their book (without seeing any of the actual writing), we did roundtable sessions with a group of six or seven writers. Each writer read the first page of his or her manuscript and I gave feedback. I could then choose the projects I wanted to hear more about and schedule an individual meeting with the writer the following morning. This interactive format turned out to be both practical and fun—props to organizer Kerrie Flanagan and the NCW team. I hope it catches on!
1) What are some of the new trends you see on the horizon? I want to make sure I write a marketable book.
My advice? Just don’t go there! By the time a trend is visible, even to those inside the business, it’s pretty late in the game to start writing a book in that vein. When you’re finished, agents will have seen a slew of hopeful follow-ups. Not to mention it’s extremely difficult to manufacture inspiration in this way. If you try to write toward a trend, chances are your heart won’t be entirely in it, and readers will notice. You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: write your story that’s bursting to be told—and worry about the marketing once it’s done.
2) How long should I wait to hear back from an agent before following up?
To some extent, it depends on the agent’s process. At NLA, we ask for a query letter only as the first step. We try to respond to all queries within about a week at most. For partial and full manuscripts, the wait time is naturally a bit longer—our goal is 1-2 months; it is often less but can also be a bit longer at our busiest times of year. Some agents post average wait times on their websites, so check there first. Otherwise, a good rule of thumb is to give an agency 6-8 weeks, and if you haven’t received any type of reply or confirmation for your submission, go ahead and send a polite note to check in.
3) [At the roundtable sessions, I asked participants whether their manuscript was complete, as we only take submissions for finished projects.] How does a writer ever know his or her book is “finished”?
Touché! We all know that when it comes to a manuscript, the final product is a moving target. You think you’re done, then your critique group says “not quite.” Or you give it to your editor friend, and she tells you it’s time for another draft. Basically, you know your manuscript is complete and ready to show agents when you’ve taken all feedback into account and feel it is the very best book you can write at this stage in your writing career. If an agent takes you on, he or she will likely recommend some changes before the manuscript is ready for submission to publishers. Then, when you get a contract you’ll have an in-house editor at your publisher. And that’s when the real work begins. : )